Why Goals Don’t Work as We Expect

goals vs systems

We relentlessly set goals — weekly, monthly, yearly.

We think if there’s a goal, we’re continually moving towards it. The goal resembles a destination, and it seems as if our desire is strong enough, we’ll be able to get there.

But it’s not the case.

As James Clear pointed out, winners and losers have the same goals. Every Olympian wants to win gold at the next games. Every coach wants his team to win the championship. Every entrepreneur wants to build a million-dollar business (or almost everyone).

But not everyone succeeds. And the problem is that goals are about results. It’s about the things behind the door, not in front of them. And we can’t control what’s behind the same door, no matter how much we want to.

In December 2019, I had a chance to hear Dave Limp, the SVP of Devices and Services at Amazon, at the fireside chat held at Ring in Santa Monica. When someone asked Dave how Amazon managed to achieve financial success so many times, despite the circumstances, his answer stuck in my head for a long time:

“𝗪𝗲 𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗳𝗼𝗰𝘂𝘀𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗼𝗻 𝘄𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝘄𝗲 𝗰𝗮𝗻 𝗰𝗼𝗻𝘁𝗿𝗼𝗹 𝗶𝗻𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗮𝗱 𝗼𝗳 𝘄𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝘄𝗲 𝗰𝗮𝗻𝗻𝗼𝘁. 𝗪𝗲 𝗰𝗮𝗻’𝘁 𝗰𝗼𝗻𝘁𝗿𝗼𝗹 𝗴𝗼𝗮𝗹𝘀, 𝗯𝘂𝘁 𝘄𝗲 𝗱𝗲𝗳𝗶𝗻𝗶𝘁𝗲𝗹𝘆 𝗰𝗮𝗻 𝘄𝗼𝗿𝗸 𝗼𝗻 𝗼𝘂𝗿 𝘀𝘆𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗺𝘀 𝗮𝗶𝗺𝗲𝗱 𝗮𝘁 𝗮𝗰𝗵𝗶𝗲𝘃𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝘁𝗵𝗲𝘀𝗲 𝗴𝗼𝗮𝗹𝘀. 𝗧𝗮𝗸𝗲 𝗰𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗶𝗻𝗽𝘂𝘁𝘀 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗼𝘂𝘁𝗽𝘂𝘁𝘀 𝘄𝗶𝗹𝗹 𝘁𝗮𝗸𝗲 𝗰𝗮𝗿𝗲 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗺𝘀𝗲𝗹𝘃𝗲𝘀”

Dave Limp, SVP Amazon Devices

Take care of the inputs, and the outputs will take care of themselves. This is an ingeniously simple and, at the same time, a profound statement.

On the way home, I thought about how it applied to my life. And it turned out that most of the things I achieved were the product of systems, not goals.

I didn’t plan to become an exchange student in the US when I was in high school. I just put a lot of effort into learning English. I didn’t intend to become a product manager. I just did my best to have people around who are smarter than me. And I badly wanted to build things that extend beyond borders. Conversely, most of the things I had goals for were never achieved.

The sample size doesn’t claim statistical significance, but I’m sure that many of us experienced the same.

More to it, goals limit our happiness. We have inflated hopes for delayed gratification. We think that when we achieve that X goal, only then can we finally become happy. But this is nothing more than a pure illusion.

The happiness we get from achieving the goal passes by at the speed of light. It’s similar to when you get happy after you cleaned your house on the weekend, but become upset when it’s a mess again on Monday. The reason is that your lifestyle hasn’t changed, so happiness won’t endure.

If we want to achieve better results, we need to forget about goal setting — and focus on the system instead.

If our goal is to build a million-dollar business, then our system is how we test ideas, hire people, engage customers… The list goes on and on, but the point is clear.

Still and all, we all want to be happy but achieving goals does not guarantee it. Happiness is about falling in love with the process, not the product. We don’t have to put off happiness with the process — we are happy here and now. There is a particular approach in machine learning and AI called unsupervised learning. Such algorithms look for previously unknown patterns in a particular dataset with minimal human intervention.

Systems is an unsupervised learning approach to life. We don’t program everything in advance. We’re embracing the unknown and the convexity of possibilities. As Steve Jobs said, we cannot connect the dots in our lives by looking forward; they can only be connected by looking back.

So put some trust in unsupervised learning, and it will somehow connect the dots for your future self.

  1. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts. It’s a helpful article. I was looking for the answer that you provided.

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